The greatest and most famous singer of the 20th-century Arab world was Um Kalthoum, whose records and cassettes, fifteen years after her death, are available everywhere. A fair number of non-Arabs know about her too, partly because of the hypnotic and melancholy effect of her singing, partly because in the world-wide rediscovery of authentic people’s art Um Kalthoum is a dominant figure. But she also played a significant role in the emerging Third World women’s movement as a pious ‘Nightingale of the East’ whose public exposure was as a model not only of feminine consciousness but also of domestic propriety. During her lifetime, there was talk about whether or not she was a lesbian, but the sheer force of her performances of elevated music set to classical verse overrode such rumours. In Egypt she was a national symbol, respected both during the monarchy and after the revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Um Kalthoum’s career was extraordinarily long, and to most Arabs it was the highly respectable while very romantic tip of the eroticism typified by the belly-dancer. Like the great singer herself, belly-dancers routinely performed in films, theatres and cabarets, and on the ceremonial platforms of weddings and other private celebrations in Cairo and Alexandria. Whereas you couldn’t really enjoy looking at the portly and severe Um Kalthoum, you couldn’t do much more than enjoy looking at fine belly-dancers, whose first star was the Lebanese-born Badia Massabni, also an actress, cabaret-owner and trainer of young talent. Badia’s career as a dancer ended around World War Two, but her true heir and disciple was Tahia Carioca, who was, I think, the finest belly-dancer ever. Now 75 and living in Cairo, she is still active as an actress and political militant, and, like Um Kalthoum, the remarkable symbol of a national culture. Um Kalthoum performed at King Farouk’s wedding in 1936, and the lavish party was also Tahia’s debut. It gave her a prominence she never lost.
During her heyday as dancer extraordinaire Tahia Carioca embodied a very specific kind of sexiness, which she rendered as the most smooth and understated of dancers, and as a highly visible femme fatale in Egyptian films. When I looked up the actual number of films she made between the early Forties and 1980 I was able to find 190 titles; when I asked her about them in Cairo during the spring of 1989, she couldn’t remember the exact figure but opined that the sum was well over two hundred. Most of her early films included at least one dance number – every Egyptian film that did not pretend to be ‘high drama’ (only a handful did) had to include a song-and-dance routine. This was a formula rather like second-act ballets in 19th-century Paris opera performances: ballets were put on whether or not they fitted the story. In Egyptian films an announcer would suddenly appear on screen and name a singer and dancer; the scene would reveal itself (often gratuitously) to be a nightclub or a large living-room; then an orchestra would strike up the music, and the performance began.
Tahia did such scenes. But they were no more than crude shorthand sketches for her full-scale cabaret performances, the only one of which I actually witnessed I shall for ever remember with startling vividness. It took place in 1950. An enterprising schoolmate had discovered that she was dancing at Badia’s open-air casino alongside the Nile in Giza (today the site of a high-rise Sheraton), tickets were obtained, and four awkward 14-year-olds arrived on the appointed evening at least two hours before she was to begin. The daytime heat of that June day had pretty much dissolved into a balmy, slightly windy evening. By the time the lights went down for the star turn, Badia’s was full, all forty or so tables packed with an entirely Egyptian audience of middle-class aficionados. Tahia’s partner for the evening was the singer Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, a stolid-looking, bald gentleman in a white dinner-jacket who walked out, planted himself on a wood-and-wicker chair in the middle of the primitive stage, and began to sing to the accompaniment of a small takhta, or Arab orchestra, seated off to one side. The song was ‘Mandil-el-Helou’ (‘A Pretty Handkerchief), whose innumerable verses celebrated the woman who draped it, cried into it, decorated her hair with it, on and on for almost a full hour.
There were at least fifteen minutes of this before Tahia suddenly revealed herself a few feet behind the singer’s chair. We were sitting about as far from the stage as it was possible to sit, but the shimmering, glistening blue costume she wore simply dazzled the eye, so bright were the sequins and spangles, so controlled was her quite lengthy immobility as she stood there with an entirely composed look about her. As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic Arab belly-dancer’s art is not how much but how little the artist moves: only the novices, or the deplorable Greek and American imitators, go in for the appalling wiggling and jumping around that passes for ‘sexiness’ and harem hootchy-kootch. The point is to make an effect mainly (but by no means exclusively) through suggestiveness, and – in the kind of full-scale composition Tahia offered that night – to do so over a series of episodes knitted together in alternating moods, recurring motifs. For ‘Mandil-el-Helou’ Tahia’s central motif was her relationship to the largely oblivious Abdel Aziz Mahmoud. She would glide up behind him, as he droned on, appear as if to fall into his arms, mimic and mock him – all without ever touching him or eliciting any response.
Her diaphanous veils were laid over the modified bikini that was basic to the outfit without ever becoming its main attraction. The beauty of her dance was its connectedness: the feeling she communicated of a spectacularly lithe and well-shaped body undulating through a complex but decorative series of encumbrances made up of gauzes, veils, necklaces, strings of gold and silver chains, which her movements animated deliberately and at times almost theoretically. She would stand, for example, and slowly begin to move her right hip, which would in turn activate her silver leggings, and the beads draped over the right side of her waist. As she did all this, she would look down at the moving parts, so to speak, and fix our gaze on them too, as if we were all watching a separate little drama, rhythmically very controlled, re-configuring her body so as to highlight her semi-detached right side. Tahia’s dance was like an extended arabesque elaborated around her seated colleague. She never jumped, or bobbed her breasts, or went in for bumping and grinding. There was a majestic deliberateness to the whole thing that maintained itself right through even the quicker passages. Each of us knew that we were experiencing an immensely exciting – because endlessly deferred – erotic experience, the likes of which we could never hope to match in real life. And that was precisely the point: this was sexuality as a public event, brilliantly planned and executed, yet totally unconsummated and unrealisable.
Other dancers might go in for acrobatics, or slithering about on the floor, or modified stripteasing, but not Tahia, whose grace and elegance suggested something altogether classical and even monumental. The paradox was that she was so immediately sensual and yet so remote, unapproachable, unobtainable. In our severely repressed world these attributes enhanced the impression she made. I especially recall that once she started dancing, and continuing through the rest of her performance, she had what appeared to be a small self-absorbed smile on her face, her mouth open more than is usual in a smile, as if she was privately contemplating her body, enjoying its movements. Her smile muted whatever tawdry theatricality attached to the scene and to her dance, purifying them by virtue of the concentration bestowed on her innermost and most self-abstracted thoughts. And indeed, as I have watched her dancing through at least twenty-five or thirty of her films, I have always found that smile, lighting up the usually silly or affected setting – a still point of the turning world.
That smile has seemed to me symbolic of Tahia’s distinction in a culture that featured dozens of dancers called Zouzou and Fifi, most of them treated as barely a notch above prostitutes. This was always evident during periods of Egyptian prosperity, the last days of Farouk, for instance, or when the oil boom brought wealthy Gulf Arabs to Egypt; it was also true when Lebanon was the Arab world’s playground, with thousands of girls available for display or hire. Most belly-dancers would appear in such circumstances to go to the highest bidder, the nightclub serving as a temporary shopwindow. The pressures of a conservative Islamic culture were to blame for this, as were the distortions produced by uneven development. To be a respectably nubile woman was usually to be destined for marriage without much transition from adolescence; to be young and attractive has therefore not always been an advantage, since a conventional father might for that very reason arrange a wedding with a ‘mature’ and well-off man. If women didn’t fall within those schemes, they risked all sorts of opprobrium.
Tahia belongs, not to the easily identified culture of B-girls and fallen women, but to the world of progressive women skirting or unblocking the social lanes. She remained organically linked, however, to her country’s society, because she discovered another, far more interesting role for herself as dancer and entertainer. This was the all-but-forgotten role of almeh (literally, a learned woman), spoken of by 19th-century European visitors to the Orient such as Edward Lane and Flaubert. The almeh was a courtesan of sorts, but a woman of significant accomplishments. Dancing was only one of her gifts: others were the ability to sing and recite classical poetry, to discourse wittily, to be sought after for her company by men of law, politics and literature.
Tahia is referred to as almeh in her best film, one of her earliest, Li’bet il Sit (‘The Lady’s Ploy’, 1946), which also stars the greatest of 20th-century Arab actors and comedians, Naguib el-Rihani, a formidable combination of Chaplin and Molière. In the film, Tahia is a gifted young dancer and wit, used by her rascally parents to ensnare men of means. Rihani, who plays an unemployed teacher, is fond of her and she loves him, but she is lured by her parents into a get-rich scheme involving a wealthy Lebanese. In the end, Tahia returns to Rihani – a rather sentimental conclusion of a kind that few of her other films permit themselves. She performs a short but wonderfully provocative dance in the film, but that is meant to be an almost minor affair compared to the display of her wit, intelligence and beauty.
Subsequently, Tahia seems to have been fixed by film directors in a coarser version of this role, which she repeats in film after film. She is the other woman, a counter to the virtuous, domestically acceptable and much less interesting female lead. Even within those limits, Tahia’s talents shine through. You believe she would be more interesting as companion and as sexual partner than the woman who gets married to the leading man, and you begin to suspect that because she is so talented and so sexy, she has to be portrayed as a dangerous woman – the almeh who is too learned, too smart, too sexually advanced, for any man in contemporary Egypt. By the Fifties Tahia had become the standard woman-as-devil figure in dozens of Egyptian films. In Shabab Imra’, considered a later classic, she plays the role of a tough but sexually starved widow, who rents a room to a handsome country bumpkin recently come to Cairo as an Azhar student; she seduces and marries him; but when he meets the angelic daughter of a family friend, he awakens from Tahia’s Circe-like spell, denounces her and leaves her for the safe, boring younger woman. In an otherwise undistinguished parable there is one great scene, in which Tahia pulls her young husband away from a street celebration that features a young belly-dancer who has captivated the inexperienced student. Tahia takes him into their house, sits him down and tells him that she will now show him what real dancing is like. Whereupon she treats him to a private performance that positively smoulders, proving that, middle-aged or not, she still is the finest dancer, the most formidable intellect, and the most desirable sexual object around.
Like many expatriates for whom Tahia was one of the great sexual symbols of our youth, I assumed that she would go on dancing more or less for ever. Consider the rude shock when, after an absence from Egypt of fifteen years, I returned there in the summer of 1975 and was told that Cairo’s longest-running dramatic hit featured Tahia Carioca and her newest husband Fayek Halawa, who had also written the play, Yahya al-Wafd (‘Hooray for the Delegation’). On my second night in Cairo I went to the old Cinema Miami, now an open-air theatre, all excitement and sentimental expectation at this rare chance to recover some part of my all-but-buried youth. The play was an overwhelmingly long and vulgar farce, about a group of Egyptian villagers who had a delegation of Soviet agricultural experts foisted on them. Relentlessly the play exposed the Russians’ rigid unpleasantness (Sadat had thrown out all Russian advisers in 1972) while celebrating the Egyptians’ witty deflation of their schemes. It began at about 9.30, but I could only endure two-and-a-half hours (i.e. half) of its idiotic badinage.
No small part in my disillusionment was what had become of Tahia. She had the role of the loudest, toughest village woman, whose prize ram was rented out for breeding purposes (lots of predictable jokes about sexual potency). But it was her appearance and manner that took my breath away. Gone was the tawny seductress, the graceful dancer who was all elegance and perfectly executed gesture. She had turned into a 220-pound swaggering bully; she stood with her hands on her hips unreeling insults, uttering the coarsest of one-liners, the easiest of double-entendres, in an almost unwatchable slapstick style, all of it at the service of what seemed to be the worst kind of opportunistic pro-Sadat, anti-Nasser politics. This was a period when Egyptian policy, moving away from the progressive, Third World and Arab commitments of its post-1954 history under Nasser, was trying to please Henry Kissinger. It saddened me that Tahia and her scrawny little husband should be involved in this kind of thing.
In the 14 years since that trip to Egypt, bits and pieces of information about Tahia have added complexity to her portrait. A well-known Egyptian sociologist told me, for example, that during the Forties and Fifties she had been very close to the Communist Party. This, he said, was ‘the radicalisation of the belly-dancers’. In 1988 I learned that she appeared in Athens as part of a group of Egyptian and other Arab artists and intellectuals who had signed on to join the Palestinian ship el-Awda (‘Return’) in a symbolic reverse-exodus journey back to the Holy Land. After two weeks of one mishap after another the boat was blown up by the Israeli secret service and the project abandoned. I later heard that Tahia had also emerged as one of the leaders of a very vocal and politically-advanced syndicate of cinema actors, directors and photographers. What then was the truth about the dancer who was now 75 and had attained the position of a senior, almost establishment figure in the post-Sadat culture of late 20th-century Egypt?
Through a friend of Tahia’s, the documentary film-maker Nabiha Loutfy, I set up an appointment to see her. She now lives in a small apartment about a block away from where I saw her dance forty years before. She greeted Nabiha and myself with a solemn dignity I had not expected. Dressed in austere black, she was very well made-up, her arms and legs, however, covered in the long sleeves and dark stockings of the pious Muslim woman. She was slightly less large than she had been, and there was no vulgarity. She now communicated a gravity and authority that came from her being much more than just a former belly-dancer. A living legend perhaps, or a famous sage: the almeh in semi-retirement. Nabiha addressed her as Hajja, the Islamic epithet accorded to elderly women who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a designation reinforced not only by her extremely sober mien but by the many pictures of Mecca on the wall and by the Koran plainly in view on a nearby table. As we sat and chatted, her life passed before us in majestic review.
She came from an Ismailia family long active in politics, and her real name is Tahia Mohammed Kraiem. Her paternal uncle was killed by the British, and, she went on proudly, at least three of her family were named Nidal (‘Struggle’). Her father had spent time in prisons. She was somewhat Tartuffian when she described her feelings about dancing – like being in a temple, she said – but it was clear as she spoke that she had believed herself to be doing more in her dancing than enticing men like some common entraîneuse. ‘My life as a dancer has been beautiful, and I love it,’ she said with total conviction. Tahia saw herself – correctly, I believe – as part of a major cultural renaissance, a nationalist revival in the arts based on the liberal independence movement of Saad Zaghloul and his revolution of 1919: the artistic figures included writers like Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfik al-Hakim, Taha Hussein, singers like Um Kalthoum and Abdel Wahhab, actors like Soleiman Naguib and Rihani. As a young girl she had been taught by Badia, who advised her not to hang around nightclubs and bars once she had performed her number. Wistfully she added that she found it very hard to learn to use castanets, but finally managed thanks to Badia, a woman she spoke of with love and veneration.
As the tea and biscuits were brought out I asked her to talk about her political life. Her descriptions were extraordinary, as much because I realised for the first time that she had always been part of the nationalist Left (Nasser, she said, had jailed her in the Fifties because she had been a member of the League for Peace, a Moscow front organisation) as because she had so low an opinion of Egypt’s present leaders. I asked her about the awful Yahya al-Wafd. It was considered a Sadatist play, she said, but she saw it mainly as a play about the Egyptian readiness always to think of foreigners ‘as better than we are’. This somewhat unconvincing rationale for what I still thought an obviously self-serving pro-Sadat play led her into a diatribe against her former husband, Fayek Halawa, who, she complained, had dragged her into one disaster after another. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘do you think I live here and not in my house? He took it and everything in it, including all my pictures and films, leaving me with nothing at all.’ Pathos quickly gave way to vivacity when I asked her about the US, which she had visited several times. Once she had even crossed the country by car, a trip she found wonderful. ‘Liked the people, but hate their government’s policy.’
For someone who had grown up on Egyptian films without knowing much about their background, and for whom Tahia’s dancing was a rich but relatively unexplored memory, talking with this venerable old woman was exhilarating. She was a source of information on a huge variety of subjects, all of it narrated with warmth, humour and a very attractive irony. At one point her discourse was interrupted by the evening call to prayer, broadcast with an ear-splitting roar from the minaret of a nearby mosque. At once she stopped herself, closed her eyes, extended her arms, palms facing upwards, and recited the Koranic verses along with the muezzin. The moment the prayers were over I burst out with the hopelessly over-determined question I had long held within me, perhaps ever since I saw her dance in 1950. ‘How many times have you been married, Tahia?’ I asked. This was as close as I could come to asking her to connect the sensuality of her dancing (and that incredible smile of hers) with her personal life.
The transformation in her appearance was stunning. She had barely finished her prayers when, in response to my question, she sat up straight, one elbow cocked provokingly at me, the other arm gesturing rhetorically in the air. ‘Many times,’ she retorted, her voice taking on the brassiness one associates with a lady of the night. Her eyes and her tone seemed to add: ‘So what? I’ve known lots of men.’ Seeking to get us out of this little impasse, the ever-solicitous Nabiha asked her which of them she had loved, which had influenced her. ‘None at all,’ she said harshly. ‘They were a shabby lot of bastards;’ a declaration followed by a string of expletives. Far from the resignation and detachment of a prayerful old age, this powerful outburst revealed an individualist and a fighter. And yet one also felt the romantic spirit of a person often deceived who, given a chance, would fall in love again. Tahia’s latest difficulties with a man, the rascally Fayek Halawa, were chronicled in remorseless detail. Our sympathies were fully with her, however, as they were when she and Nabiha took off after a wealthy film distributor who was trying to manipulate the syndicate. ‘Ah men,’ she sighed. Her lively eyes looked at me quizzically.
She knew the patterns and forms of her world, and to a great extent she had respected them. A dutiful daughter then, a pious older Muslim now. Yet Tahia was also an emblem of all that was unadministered, uncontrolled, unco-opted in her culture: for such energies the career of almeh, dancer and actress nonpareil was a perfect resolution. You could feel the assurance she had brought to her relation with the centres of authority, the challenge of a free woman. When I went to the central cinema archive in Cairo the next day to look for photographic and written material about her, I found only a shambles, a little apartment downtown with more employees than work, more vague designs to chronicle Egypt’s rich artistic history than plans to get the real work done. Then I saw that Tahia was her own history, largely undocumented but still magisterially present, and subversive to boot.